When I spoke to iRobot’s Colin Angle earlier this summer, he said that iRobot OS – the latest software operating system for robotic vacuums and mops – will give his home robots a deeper understanding of your home and your habits. This takes on a whole new meaning with the news today that Amazon has bought iRobot for $1.7 billion.
From a smart home perspective, it seems clear that Amazon wants iRobot for the maps it creates to give it that deep understanding of our homes. The Vacuum Company has detailed knowledge of our floor plans and, most importantly, how they change. He knows where your kitchen is, your kids’ rooms, where your sofa is (and how new it is), and whether you recently converted a guest room into a nursery.
This type of data is digital gold for a company whose primary goal is to sell you more stuff. While I’m interested to see how Amazon can leverage iRobot technology to improve its smart home ambitions, many are right to care about the privacy implications. People want home automation to work better, but they don’t want to give up the intimate details of their lives for more convenience.
This is a dilemma throughout the tech world, but in our homes it is much more personal. Amazon’s history of sharing data with police departments through its Ring subsidiary, along with its “always listen (Wake Up Word)” smart speakers and now its comprehensive knowledge of your floor plan, gives it a completely complete picture of your everyday life.
iRobot’s connected Roomba brooms and mops both roll around homes several times a week, mapping and re-planning spaces. In its latest model, the j7, iRobot has added an AI-powered front camera which, according to Angle, has detected more than 43 million objects in people’s homes. Other models have a low-resolution camera that points to the ceiling for navigation.
All this makes it likely that this purchase is not about robotics; If that was what Amazon wanted, they would have bought iRobot years ago. Instead, it likely chose the company (for a relative bargain—iRobot just reported a 30 percent revenue drop in the face of increased competition) for a detailed look inside our homes. why? Because knowing your building outline provides context. And in the smart home where Amazon plays a major role, context is king.
“We really believe in ambient intelligence — an environment where your devices are woven together by AI so they can offer a lot more than any single device can do on their own,” Marja Koopmans, Alexa smart home manager, told me in an interview last month. Ambient intelligence requires multiple data points to function. With detailed maps of our homes and the ability to communicate directly with more smart home devices once Matter arrives, Amazon’s vision of ambient intelligence in the smart home is suddenly more achievable.
Astro — Amazon’s “beloved” home robot — was most likely trying to get hold of that data. The robot has good mapping capabilities, backed by sensors and cameras that allow it to know everything from where the refrigerator is to the room you are currently in. It’s clear that Amazon already has the ability to do what iRobot does. But for a thousand dollars and with limited capabilities (you can’t empty your house) and without a public release date, Astro isn’t getting this information from Amazon anytime soon.
Ring’s Always Home Cam has similar mapping capabilities, allowing the flying camera to navigate safely around your home. This product has a far greater range than Astro, costing just $250 and has a very clear security focus. But it is still not available for purchase.
So, what iRobot brings to Amazon is context at scale. As Angle told me in May, “The barrier to the next level of AI in robotics is no better than AI. We’ve been understanding the saying ‘go into the kitchen and get me a beer’ for a decade,” Angle says. But if I don’t know where the kitchen is, and I don’t know where the fridge is, and I don’t know what a beer looks like, it doesn’t really matter that I understand your words.” iRobot OS provides some of that context, and because it’s cloud-based, it can easily share information with other devices. (Currently (Users can opt out of Roomba’s smart map feature, which stores and shares map data between iRobot devices.)
With context, the smart home gets smarter; Devices can work better and work together without the homeowner having to program them or require them to do so. Angle used an example of a connected air purifier (iRobot, now Amazon has Aeris air purifiers). The air purifier can automatically know which room it was in using the iRobot OS cloud. “Would [know] ‘I’m in the kitchen. It’s okay to make more noise. There are a lot of sources of pollutants here. Compared to her role in the bedroom, which would be different,” Angle says.
Amazon now owns four smart home brands (in addition to its Alexa platform, which centers on Echo smart speakers and smart displays): home security company Ring, budget camera company Blink, and Wi-Fi leader Eero. Add in iRobot and Amazon has so many elements needed to create an almost smart home that it can anticipate what you want it to do and do without you asking. This is something Amazon has already started doing with its Hunches feature.
But consumer confidence is a major obstacle. Amazon will need to do more to prove that it deserves this kind of unrestricted access to your home. Today, for many people, more comfort is not worth the trade-off.
Photo by Jennifer Bateson Tohey/The Verge